Kyrie Irving cost himself millions of dollars in salary. He may have cost the Brooklyn Nets any realistic chance of winning the NBA title.
His decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus put him on center stage of the debate and left him ineligible to play in New York for most of the season. Irving was criticized for being stubborn and selfish, for thinking only about the individual in a sport that’s about the team.
Early in the season, he was bothered by some of the comments he heard.
Now it’s the postseason and Irving isn’t second-guessing anything.
“So I can’t address everybody, but as we move forward in time, I know that I made the right decision for me,” Irving said Friday.
Critics would say that all decisions Irving makes are about him. His off-court choices meant he wasn’t available to help share the scoring pressure with his close friend Kevin Durant. He wasn’t around to show a championship commitment to James Harden, perhaps contributing to the All-Star guard deciding his future wasn’t in Brooklyn.
Irving pays no more attention to those voices than he does the ones who still want to dwell on his turbulent time in Boston, where the Nets play Game 1 of their first-round series Sunday.
“I can really say that I stood firm on what I believed in, what I wanted to do with my body. I think that should be not just an American right, I think that should be a human right,” Irving said. “And when you stand for something like that, in a nature of society that we’re in where we have a lot more followers than we do leaders, then you’re going to be forced into being seen or somebody as a black sheep that people can attack and can clickbait your name and say these things that don’t really describe who you are or what you live like on a day-to-day basis.”
The No. 7-seeded Nets would likely be on their home court, instead of opening against the No. 2 seed if they had Irving all season. But he played in only 29 games, only a handful at home in the final days of the season after an exemption to New York City’s vaccine mandate made him eligible.
By then, more than 1,400 city workers had been fired for failing to comply with the mandate and there was no hope of the Nets meeting preseason expectations of being a dominant team. Harden had been traded to Philadelphia in February and Irving had been fined for all the games he couldn’t play because of his vaccine status. All the Nets could do was finish strong to qualify for the play-in tournament.
More than 96% of NBA players were vaccinated, including every other player for the Nets or New York Knicks. But Irving wouldn’t waver, saying he respected everyone’s opinion even though it was clear that not everyone would respect his.
“Some people disagree with me in public, some people disagree with me in private,” Irving said. “It doesn’t really bother me as much as it did in the beginning of the season, because everything was just so new. Everything was just being thrown in my face, in terms of like what I should be doing.
“And it was like, ‘Well, the majority says that you should do this’ and ‘Why are you going against this? You know you’re losing out on millions. You know you’re giving up on your teammates.’ I heard everything. I was called so many different names. People just continuing and continuing to drown out the media space with what I should be doing and I just felt like there’s going to be a time where all this stuff is going to be in the wind and we can talk as human beings.”
Irving played brilliantly in his limited time, averaging 27.4 points with a 50-point game and a 60-point game, but the basketball was only a secondary part of the conversation this season.
Even with the playoffs looming, with people still receiving booster shots amid the ongoing battle against COVID-19, basketball still isn’t the primary topic of conversations about Irving in some circles. He is aware of the narrative but said right now can’t be distracted by it.
“I really just want to focus on the game and do whatever I can to put my team in the best position to win,” Irving said, adding that he still thinks about all the ups and downs of this season.
“It’s just how much has happened, how much has been done, how much has been said. It’s no time to even pay attention to that again. I’ll have my chance to say the things I want to and address the things I want to in due time.”